This post by Nishant Shah is part of a series related to the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy: The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a Time Of Surveillance and Disclosure, which takes place in Vienna, Austria from March 30 – April 1, 2014. The 2014 seminar is jointly organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation (AAF), and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (DA). For more information visit the seminar webpage and Facebook Page. Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and Director-Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India.
An imagined and perceived gap between the global and the local informs transnational politics and internet policy. The global views the local as both the site upon which the global can manifest itself as well as the microcosm that supports and strengthens global visions by providing mutations, adaptations and reengineering of the governance practices. The local is encouraged to connect with the global through a series of outward facing practices and policies, thus producing two separate domains of preservation and change. On the one hand, the local, the organic and the traditional, needs to be preserved and make the transnational and the global the exotic other. On the other hand, the local also needs to be in a state of aspiration, transforming itself to belong to global networks of polity and policy that are deemed as desirable, especially for a development and rights based vision of societies.
While these negotiations and transactions are often fruitful and local, national, and transnational structures and mechanics have been developed to facilitate this flow, this relationship is precarious. There is an implicit recognition that the local and the transnational, dialectically produced, are often opaque categories and empty signifiers. They sustain themselves through unquestioned presumptions of particular attributes that are taken for granted in these interactions. There have been many different metaphors that have been used to understand and explain these complex transfers of knowledge and information, resources and capital, bodies and ideologies. Vectors, Flows, Disjunctures, Intersections are some of the examples. However, with the rise of the digital technologies and vocabularies, especially the internet, the metaphor of the Network with its distributed nodes has become one of the most potent explanations of contemporary politics. This idea of living in networked worlds is so seductive and ‘common-sense,’ that it has become an everyday practice to think of the global as a robust, never-ending, all-inclusive network where the local becomes an important node because it enables both connectivity within but also an expansion of the edges, in order to connect to that which is outside the traffic capacities of the network.
The ‘Network Society’ paradigm is distinct from earlier rubrics of information and open society that have informed existing information and communication policies. In this paradigm we have the opportunity to revisit and remap the ways in which local governments and populations function and how they produce locals who can feed into the transnational and global discourse. The network facilitates some knowledge that is valuable and allows us to map inequity and mal-distribution of resources by offering comparisons between the different nodes. Networks force our attention to the edges, the no-person’s-zone which is porous but still serves as an osmotic filter that often keeps the underprivileged and the unintelligible outside its fold. Networks as metaphors are valuable because they produce a cartographic vision of the world with multiple boundaries and layers, dealing with big data sets to create patterns that might otherwise be invisible. They enable the replication of models that can be further localised and adapted to fit the needs of the context. Networks make the world legible – we write it through the lens of the network, intelligible – we understand it through the language and vocabulary of the network, and accessible – it allows for knowledge and practices to transfer across geographies and times.
At the same time, networks are a vicious form of organisation because they work through the logic of resource maximisation, efficiency and optimisation, often disallowing voices of dissent that threaten the consensus making mechanisms of the network. Networks have a self-referential relationship with reality because they produce accounts of reality which can easily stand in for the material and the real. They are the new narratives that can operate with existing data sets and produce such rich insights for analysis that we forget to account for that which cannot be captured in the database structures of these data streams. Networks work through a principle of homogeneity and records, thus precluding forms of operation which cannot be easily quantified.
Given this complex nature of networks and the fact that they are emerging as the de facto explanations of not only social and cultural relationships but also economic and political transactions, it might be fruitful to approach the world of policy and politics, the local and the transnational, through the lens of the network. Building a critique of the network while also deploying the network as a way to account for the governmental practices might produce key insights into how the world operates. What does it mean to imagine the world in the image of the internet as a gigantic network? What are the ways in which a networked visualisation of policy and governmental processes can help us analyse and understand contemporary politics? What tools can we develop to expose the limitations of a network paradigm and look at more inclusive and sensitive models for public discourse and participation? How do we document events, people, and drivers of political change that often get overlooked in the networked imagination of transnational politics? These are the kind of questions that the Center for Global Communication Study’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) could initiate, building empirical, qualitative and historical research to understand the complex state of policy making and its relationship with enforcement, operationalization and localisation.
Given the scope and scale of these questions, there are a few specific directions that can be followed to ensure that research is focused and concentrated rather than too vague and generalised:
- Bird’s eye views: The big picture understanding of transnational political and policy networks is still missing from our accounts of contemporary discourse. While global representative networks of multi-stakeholder dialogues have been established, there is not enough understanding of how they generate traffic (information, knowledge, data, people, policies) within the network through the different nodes. Producing an annotated and visual network map that looks at the different structural and organisational endeavours and presences, based on available open public data, bolstered by qualitative interviews would be very useful both as a research resource but also an analytic prototype to understand the complex relationships between the various stakeholders involved in processes of political change.
- Crisis Mapping: One of the most important things within Network studies is how the network identifies and resolves crises. Crises are the moment when the internal flaws, the structural weaknesses, and the fragile infrastructure become visible. The digital network, like the internet, has specific mechanisms of protecting itself against crises. However, the appearance of a crisis becomes an exciting time to look at the discrepancy between the ambition of the network and its usage. A crisis is generally a symptom that shows the potentials for radical subversion, overthrowing, questioning and the abuse of network designs and visions. Locating ICT related crises with historical and geographical focuses could similarly reveal the discrepancies of the processes of making policy and orchestrating politics.
- Longitudinal Studies: The network remains strong because it works through a prototype principle. Consequently, no matter how large the network is, it is possible to splice, slice, and separate a small component of the network for deep dive studies. This microcosm offers rich data sets, which can then be applied across the network to yield different results. Further, working with different actors – from individual to the collective, from the informal the institutional – but giving them all equal valency provides a more equal view of the roles, responsibilities, and aspirations of the different actors involved in the processes. This kind of a longitudinal study, working on very small case-studies and then applying them to analyse the larger social and political conditions help in understanding the transnational and global processes in a new way.
These research based inquiries could result in many different outputs based on the key users that they are working with and for. The methods could be hybrid, using existing local and experimental structures, with predefined criteria for rigour and robustness. The research, given its nature, would necessitate working with existing networks and expanding them, thus building strong and sustainable knowledge networks that can be diverted towards intervention through capacity building and pedagogy directed at the different actors identified within these nodes.
Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and Director-Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India. He is an International Tandem Partner at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University, Germany and a Knowledge Partner with the Hivos Knowledge Programme, The Netherlands. In these varied roles, he has been committed to producing infrastructure, frameworks and collaborations in the global south to understand and analyse the ways in which emergence and growth of digital technologies have shaped the contemporary social, political and cultural milieu. He is the editor for a series of monographs on ‘Histories of Internet(s) in India’ that looks at the complicated relationship that technologies have with questions of gender, sexuality, body, city, governance, archiving and gaming in a country like India. He is also the principle researcher for a research programme that produced the four-volume anthology ‘Digital AlterNatives With a Cause?’ that examines the ways in which young people’s relationship with digital technologies produces changes in their immediate environments.